Tag Archives: disfigurement

Dr. Poison: Disfigurement as a Proxy for Villainy


Debbie says:

I saw Wonder Woman the week it came out, a month or two ago, and while I liked a lot about it, I also share a lot of the concerns that have been raised about the (almost non-)portrayal of people of color, centering the male protagonist, and more. I was also especially disappointed at how badly the film-makers trivialized Etta Candy.

I was, however, fascinated by the character of Dr. Poison, and I admit that her disfigurement was part of the fascination for me. As a long-time body image (and disability) activist, I am very aware that disfigurement is especially difficult for most people to learn to look at, and that facial disfigurement is especially unsettling. This may well be hard-wired into many or most of us, to varying degrees. And we can also learn to change/control that reaction.

I’ve done enough of my own work (always more to do!) that I preferred seeing Elena Anaya’s disfigurement (created in the make-up department; Anaya is not disfigured) to her prosthetic mask.  Perhaps predictably, given our fear of disfigurement, photos of Anaya in character after she takes off her mask don’t seem to be available.

At Bustle Ariel Henley writesAs A Woman With A Facial Disfigurement, This ‘Wonder Woman’ Villain Pisses Me Off.”

In the film, Maru/Dr. Poison is a chemist working to develop a deadly gas for the Germans to use during World War I. There’s some historical significance here: Facial injury and disfigurement were common casualties of the war, because of the advanced weaponry and trench warfare. In The Rhetoric of Disfigurement in First World War Britain, historian Suzannah Biernoff stated, “Unlike amputees, these men were never officially celebrated as wounded heroes. The wounded face … presents the trauma of mechanized warfare as a loss of identity and humanity.”

She went on to say that “the loss of one’s face — is perceived as a loss of humanity.” After the war, patients with disfigured faces were seen as monsters and treated as pariahs. Many committed suicide. As a result of the high suicide rates, damaging social stigma, and desire to give returning veterans a shot at living normal lives, the art of facial prosthetics — much like the one Dr. Poison wears — was developed. These prosthetics were an art form, and literally saved thousands of lives. Yet, these dark, painful, historic tragedies were never addressed in Wonder Woman, choosing instead, to perpetuate the damaging myth that disfigurement and evil go hand-in-hand. …

Instead of exploring the threads explaining who Dr. Poison is, and creating a villain with substance and depth, she is portrayed as nothing more than her evil, disfigured face  — a common character device that plays into a larger issue in the entertainment industry, including characters like Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street and Darth Vader in Star Wars, as well as numerous villains in the James Bond series. In an interview with Brendon Connelly of the pop culture website Bleeding Cool on why so many Bond villains have disfigurements, James Bond producer Michael G. Wilson stated, “it’s very much a Fleming device that he uses throughout the films, the idea that physical deformity and personality deformity go hand in hand in some of these villains.”

No wonder Henley is pissed off. In fact, she’s probably steamingly furious and being too polite. Not only is she facing a very successful film that perpetuates a stereotype that harms her, she’s also facing a very powerful film producer justifying the stereotype as a “device.” She lives with frequent and recurring social support for vilifying people like her; anger is both appropriate and sadly inevitable.


Photo used for illustrative purpose

Disfigured soldiers aren’t the only suicides in this story; Lucy Grealy, pictured above, the brilliant author of Autobiography of a Face, is a nonmiitary example. I followed Grealy’s work from Autobiography until she killed herself. I recommend Ann Patchett’s superb memoir of their friendship, Truth and Beauty (although I just learned by writing this that Grealy’s sister objected to Patchett’s book).

Let’s leave the closing words to Henley:

As someone with a facial difference, I know many people with facial disfigurements and scarring, and not one of them is, or has become evil, because of the appearance of their face. The only evil most of us have experienced has been at the hands of a society that refuses to accept us.

I found Henley through Alaina Leary’s related essay in Teen Vogue.

The Hidden Truths of Major Weight Loss

(crossposted on Feministe)

Laurie and Debbie say:

Julia Kozerski lost 160 pounds, exactly the way that fat people are encouraged to. She changed her diet, she built in exercise, she stayed constant. Her goal was to change her body, and she succeeded. She went from weighing 338 (fat women can always tell you the exact number) to about 180. She’s also a photographer, and she has documented the experience extensively.

before and after self-portraits of Kozerski

It’s the wonder-and-dream story of most fat women in America and the western world. But it’s not a whole story. Here’s a full frontal nude of how she looks now.

“Everything starts sagging, and you’ve got stretch marks, and clothes fit differently, you’re kind of panicking, and you’re saying, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Because this shirt doesn’t look right,'” she says. “I was very, very – I don’t want to say depressed, but I would get really down on myself about, like, ‘I’m not doing this correctly,’ or, ‘This isn’t what it’s supposed to look like.'”

As Alexandra Symonds at New York Magazine says:

After all that work, it can be a disappointing blow to discover that bodies that have lost 50-plus pounds simply don’t look like bodies that have maintained a steady weight since reaching adulthood. (While cosmetic surgeries like those detailed here can treat loose skin, stretch marks, and sagginess, they’re also expensive, invasive, and mostly absent from the fairy-tale weight loss success stories we see depicted so often.)

“It’s a fantasy, that when we lose weight, everything wrong in our lives is going to be right — that means our relationships are going to be right, we’re going to feel completely differently about ourselves,” says Geneen Roth, a New York Times bestselling author of books on eating who also leads retreats and workshops, and who herself lost between 60 and 70 pounds in her late twenties. “People are shocked to find out that this thing that they’ve been longing for and waiting for and working for is not what they thought it was.”

Nude of Kozerski from the back

It should go without saying that Kozerski is remarkably brave to put these images out, and not everyone wants to see them or hear about her experience:

Even when talking about her weight loss, Kozerski says there’s no room to share the full experience – like when she went on a popular talk show to share her story. “They’re putting me in Spanx, and I’m like, ‘This is not what I want to talk about; this is not at all how I want to come out,'” she says. “I would rather put it all out there.”

So she’s not just brave; she’s also speaking truth to power. The diet industry (not to mention the weight-loss surgery industry) does not want women (or anyone) to know that they won’t emerge from the surgery with the bodies they see in advertisements. They absolutely don’t want people to know that choosing to lose large amounts of weight is choosing, in effect, voluntary disfigurement. (ETA: by the same kinds of cultural standards that equate fat and ugliness. Since many or perhaps most people striving for major weight loss are striving for conventional beauty, this is something they should have a right to know.) The weight-loss brigade doesn’t want people to know that as long as the weight stays off, the newly-skinnier person will always have to figure out what to do with the volume of the sagging skin. Spandex stops being a fashion statement and becomes a necessity. As Symonds says, “While cosmetic surgeries like those detailed here can treat loose skin, stretch marks, and sagginess, they’re also expensive, invasive, and mostly absent from the fairy-tale weight loss success stories we see depicted so often.”

Sure, if you lose a lot of weight and keep it off, some things will probably improve. For sure, the world will treat you better, especially when your loose skin is held back by Spandex or removed by costly cosmetic surgery. And some worlds may open up to you. Symonds–trying very hard to write a pro-weight-loss article and tell the truth at the same time–says: “Julia Kozerski waxes poetic about farmers’ markets and bike rides.”

But how many women in this time and place, this culture where smooth, unwrinkled skin is valued almost as much as thin bodies, would really choose the weight loss if they knew what they were choosing?

Thanks to our friend Lizzy for the NY Magazine link.